Children in the UK have been expected to engage in home-school learning since the beginning of lockdown, much if which is online-based. There are two main problems with this: 1) there are many vulnerable families who don’t have the technology to support online learning – a study by the Sutton Trust has found that two thirds of children have not taken part in online lessons during coronavirus lockdown, and 2) there are other children who are spending an astronomical amount of time in front of a screen; doing lessons, playing games, zooming etc.
Howard Taylor (Executive Director of the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children, a public-private collaboration between UN agencies, governments, industry, regional bodies, civil society and others) has said:
“School closures and strict containment measures mean more and more families are relying on technology and digital solutions to keep children learning, entertained and connected to the outside world, but not all children have the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to keep themselves safe online.”
Ensuring the safety of our children is imperative.
What issues could be affecting children as they spend time online?
Sexual exploitation and cyber-bullying are usually at the forefront of parents’ minds but spending more time on virtual platforms can leave children vulnerable to all manner of inappropriate content, provoking issues like radicalisation, identity theft and self harm.
The reality is that cyber predators will take the opportunity to capitalise on the COVID-19 pandemic.
How can we keep our children safe?
- Be aware. If we assume our children are safe, we are putting them at risk.
- Take Control. Make use of the parental controls available on your internet-enabled devices.
- Use safe search engines. These can be activated on Google and Youtube. Other search engines designed to keep children safe are kids-search.com and swiggle.org.uk.
- Set boundaries. Increased and unstructured time online increases the chance of exploitation. Decide on a screen time routine, with specific rules about when and for ho long children can use devices. (If your children are older, allow then to participate in the conversation and agree on appropriate boundaries).
- Talk about internet safety. Have an age-appropriate conversation with your child about why it’s important to stay safe online.
- Stay visible. Create a culture where children use devices in a communal family area – so that you can keep tabs but also share in what they’re excited about or are learning.
- Store safely. Keep passwords safe and devices out of the reach of younger children.
- Explore together. Help your children choose safe, fun games to play and show interest if they’re keen to show you something. Also learn together online. Participating in their online activity is also a great way to teach them how to search safely.
- Pay attention to age ratings. Most apps, films and games will suggest an appropriate age, which will help you decide whether it’s appropriate for your child.
Top tip: Use aeroplane mode on your devices when your child is using them so they can’t make any unapproved purchases or interact with anyone online without your knowledge.
The above tips apply to children of all ages who are using the internet. If, however, you have a pre-teen (11-13) in your home, who might have a phone or might be interested in social media, it’s important to consider the following:
- Have discussions about social media early. Chat about the pros and cons of social networking – that it’s a fun way to stay in touch and share what you’re doing but emphasise that anything uploaded pictures, emails, messages – could stay around forever. That whilst it’s expressive, it’s also exposing.
- Stay safe when on the move. Be aware that if your child in using the internet whilst out and about, public Wi-Fi may not have safety features; filters to block inappropriate content may not be active.
- Stay private! If your child does have a social networking profile, teach them to block or ignore people and how to set strict privacy settings. Request that you or someone you both trust becomes their ‘friend’ or ‘follower’ to check that conversations and posts are appropriate. The consequences of ‘over-share’ can be devastating!
As your children get older, the internet will become an increasing part of daily life as they learn, socialise and engage with their surroundings. It’s important to start our children off well so that when they are making their own decisions and coming face-to-face with touch situations, they’ll be able to make smart choices. Here are a couple of ways that we can do this:
- Frank conversation. Stay interested, stay involved and don’t avoid difficult conversations – about sexting, cyberbullying, pornography etc.
- Emphasise privacy! Discuss the importance of keeping social media settings private so that sharing, tagging etc. remains between friends. Let them know that anything they upload, email or message could stay around forever online. Remind them they should only do things online that they wouldn’t mind you, their teacher or a future employer seeing. Get them to think about creating a positive digital footprint.
- Encourage respect and responsibility. Children often feel they can say things online that they wouldn’t say face-to-face. Teach them to always have respect for themselves and others online. Nurture responsibility in your children by affording them trust – choosing, apps, films and music from safe spaces that you’ve agreed on – and equally, if they break trust, initiate a pre-agreed consequence. Make sure that boundaries are clear.
As parents, we want to protect our children…but we also want to teach them so that when we send them off into the great, wide world, they will be able to do life successfully.
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